Rick’s Ghost: How an Executed Inmate May Haunt Perry’s Presidential Ambitions

Cameron Todd Willingham lived with his wife and three daughters in a Texas working-class neighborhood until disaster struck.

When a fire broke out one morning, his oldest daughter awakened her father by yelling for help.  “Daddy!  Daddy!”  The fire ravaged their small home so quickly that the firefighters weren’t able to save the children.  All three daughters died from smoke inhalation.

“My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,” he said. “I couldn’t get my babies out.”

The whole community mourned with the family and even took up a collection to help pay for the funerals.  That is, until fire investigators claimed that Cameron himself had set the home ablaze to murder his own children.   He was arrested, charged, and given the opportunity to plead guilty to spare his own life.  He refused and was sentenced to death.  Like many death row inmates, he steadfastly maintained his innocence until the day he died.

So far, the story sounds unremarkable.  A sad but typical story of death and lies.

In 2009, the New Yorker changed the conversation.  In a long, well-reported article about Willingham’s case and his appeals to the courts, writer David Grann suggested the evidence used to convict Willingham was easily refuted and new evidence may very well have established his innocence.  He described the Texas Court of Appeals as “upholding convictions even when overwhelming exculpatory evidence came to light.”

For example, a presiding judge on the court was later charged with judicial misconduct for “refusing to keep open past five o’clock a clerk’s office in order to allow a last-minute petition from a man who was executed later that night.”  Gov. George Bush pardoned people he believed were incarcerated wrongfully, even after the Court of Appeals upheld their convictions.

In other words, the court didn’t seem predisposed to give Willingham a fair hearing.

Despite the long odds, Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin scientist and fire investigator, reviewed Willingham’s case pro bono and concluded “no evidence of arson.” Other fire investigators reached the same conclusion.  Grann writes:

Without having visited the fire scene, Hurst says, it was impossible to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. But, based on the evidence, he had little doubt that it was an accidental fire—one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on “junk science.” Hurst wrote his report in such a rush that he didn’t pause to fix the typos.

His report was rushed to the Court.  However, four days before Willingham’s scheduled execution, his attorney told Willingham that the Texas Court of Appeals and Gov. Perry did not delay the execution. The process was cloaked in secrecy, and no explanation was given.  Resigned to his fate, Willingham told his parents, “Please don’t ever stop fighting to vindicate me.” He refused to walk into his execution room, was carried into the room, and killed by lethal injection.

The entire sad story, located here, is worth a read.

Let it be said that Willingham should be no one’s hero or poster boy.  Before he died, he uttered expletives to his former wife and tried to give her a rude gesture, but his hands were bound.  Plus, he admitted that he hit his wife, even when she was pregnant.  A man who helped prosecute the case paints a picture of a terribly flawed man.  One he claims could not have been innocent.

Yet, the question remains.  Did he set that fire?

In 2009, Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune investigated the case and believed that the fire was accidental, after all.  He concluded: “Over the past five years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by nine of the nation’s top fire scientists—first for the Tribune, then for the Innocence Project, and now for the commission. All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of arson. The only other evidence of significance against Willingham was twice recanted testimony by another inmate who testified that Willingham had confessed to him. Jailhouse snitches are viewed with skepticism in the justice system, so much so that some jurisdictions have restrictions against their use.”

But Willingham’s is more than a tragic story of justice denied.  Rather, it’s a ghost that could haunt Gov. Perry’s Presidential aspirations, especially as voters understand the extent of his role in what very well could be the first execution of an innocent man in modern American history.

First, he denied the stay of execution. Gov. Perry’s denial of Willingham’s petitions can be understood – and forgiven – if he had carefully reviewed the post-execution evidence relating to the mistakes that had undoubtedly been made in the case.  However, in response to allegations that an innocent man had been killed, Gov. Perry responded, “He was a wife beater.” A Perry spokesperson said the Governor was aware of a “claim of a reinterpretation of (the) arson testimony,” but Perry maligned the investigators by calling them “latter-day supposed experts.” He also suggested they were aligned with death penalty opponents. Mills, however, disputes this claim by pointing out that “the nine scientists and investigators involved, all of whom have found the original investigation flawed, have worked for both defense lawyers and prosecutors, as well as for attorneys in civil litigation. All are considered among the field’s leaders. Some are viewed as prosecution-oriented.”

Second, he pressured the commission investigating the Willingham case to cease its investigation. In 2005, the Texas state legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review forensic complaints, and the Willingham case was among the panel’s first.  Samuel Bassett, an attorney from Austin, was the chair of the Commission at the time and claims that Gov. Perry’s top legal advisors were unhappy with the course of their investigation. Not only did they call the investigation a “waste of money” they also pressured the commission to drop the matter entirely.

Third, Gov. Perry replaced three members of the commission immediately before damning testimony was heard. In spite of the Governor’s wishes, Bassett’s commission hired Craig Beyler of Hughes Associates to analyze the Willingham case. His report contained scathing criticism of the fire investigation, and was further corroboration of the initial investigation glaring problems.  According to the L.A. Times, Beyler was scheduled to discuss the case in Dallas.  However, a mere three days before his scheduled appearance, Gov. Perry replaced Bassett and two other commission members with new hand-selected replacements. John Bradley, the newly appointed chairman, immediately canceled the meeting with Beyler.

Conclusion:

Most Republicans believe the death penalty is a terrible but necessary deterrent to crime, representing the ultimate justice that can be meted out on earth.    Pro-life advocates ought to be especially eager to make sure the death penalty occurs only when it is abundantly justified.  Because when the very processes meant to safeguard the innocent are carelessly or indifferently administered, it’s an inexcusable affront to the very life we esteem.

Rick Perry survived this controversy in Texas, and was re-elected in spite of the furor surrounding his decision.

Whether America will be as forgiving is a different question altogether.

About Nancy French

Nancy French is a three time New York Times Best Selling Author.

  • Matt Walker

    Excellent article Nancy. I was wondering when you would start pointing out the issues re: Perry, that much of the conservative media would like to ignore. This man needs to be vetted. What a tragedy if this man truly was innocent.

    • http://www.NancyFrench.com Nancy French

      Thanks, Matt — the New Yorker article is worth a read — very chilling though.

  • Stan

    Perry sounds like a man that has been in power to long and is too comfortable with power. This story needs to be heard by all.

  • http://jeffwrightr.wordpress.com Jeff Wright

    I’m a big, big fan of this blog and I’m surprised and disappointed to read this smear here. The only thing missing from this article, other than the facts for the other side of the story, is a call to “Vote for Mitt!”

    Was Willingham innocent? Was Perry responsible for executing an innocent man or not? If you don’t know then it is irresponsible for you to insinuate with your emotional appeals that he did. If anyone formally concluded that Willingham was innocent, who was it? When did this happen?

    What do you think of Perry’s spokeswoman Lucy Nashed’s statement: “Willingham’s conviction was reviewed and upheld by multiple levels of state and federal courts, including nine federal courts – four times by the U.S. Supreme Court alone – over the course of more than a decade.”

    It’s my understanding that the Corsicana Fire Department disputed key parts of the Beyler report. “The City of Corsicana was extremely critical of Beyler’s report, and produced a 21-page response pointing out that his report lacked objectivity, stating ‘Given some of Dr. Beyler’s distortions of the trial record, as described below, it may be that he has assumed the role of an advocate.’” I don’t understand why you failed to mention any of this.

    I know you’re a big supporter of Mitt Romney but perhaps you’ll be a bit more fair in your treatment of his top opponent in the future.

    Jeff Wright

    • fuster

      Jeff, there’s nothing of a smear to point out that Perry was apprised that the evidence used to convict was not reliable and that Perry chose to have the man put to death rather than review the evidence.
      Rather than review, Perry used his power to prevent the review.

      Seems like with a man in jail about to be executed based on dubious evidence that there’s no need for haste and enough time to devote to insuring justice is served.

      Instead Perry used his time …. differently.

    • http://www.NancyFrench.com Nancy French

      Jeff, I am obviously a big fan of Gov. Romney — Evangelicals for Mitt is all over my bio. However, I just learned of this case and have been reading all about it. Then, I watched the Frontline investigation, talked to my husband (who is used to looking at evidence) and was grieved over the situation. In the most recent debate, when Gov. Perry said he hadn’t lost a wink of sleep over all of the inmates that had been put to death, it seemed a little cavalier, especially considering that so many people believe this man may have been innocent (of the arson). I think, as a pro-life person, it’s important to bring these issues up, regardless of who I support for President… And I think Perry’s actions (dismantling the nonpartisan group that was investigating and replacing the dismissed people with his political friends) says a great deal.

      • Bevan

        I agree with Nancy. I read this and found nothing that seemed to be trashing Perry. It is just describing, in detail, a string of bad decisions made by Perry about one particular case. I think the same could be said for Humberto Leal Garcia. Garcia was guilty. Garcia admitted his guilt and wanted to be put to death. And it could have been open and shut, but Perry denied Garcia the right to consult with the Mexican Embassy. If youare going to execute someone, do it right, and make sure you have cross every T for crying out loud.

  • Michael Dean

    Hi Nancy, you’ve pointed out one of the concerns we should have about Rick Perry. Consider some others: He implied that under certain circumstances it would be okay for Texas to secede from the Union, seriously; he derided the federal government’s stimulus program while duplicitiously taking every penny he could from the fed to balance his state’s budget shortfall which he was partially responsible for by pushing through poorly thought-out tax programs that didn’t generate sufficient revenue, (He also signed into law a tax provision that taxes companies on gross profit as well as net income so a company could have a loss and still owe taxes); he said the following back in 2000 just after Bush was elected, “Having a Texan sitting in the White House who understands instinctively the needs of this state… that could be very beneficial. Hopefully we can have a strategic plan in place to take advantage of this opportunity,” (would he show Texas favoritism if he were President?); he decided to order all 12 year old girls to be vaccinated against HPV, an STD, with a vaccine whose only manufacturer was, by the way, represented by a former Perry aide; he supported the TransTexas Corridor which was going to be a toll road right through the heart of Texas, but crumbled under conservative opposition to the government seizing so much land using eminent domain; he wears his religion on his sleeve and makes his Christian faith a center piece of his campaign while at the same time doing very unchristian things like cutting millions of dollars from programs that benefit school children and the poor. He says he’s going to run on his record, I think he would be better off to run from his record.

  • Justin

    Get your facts straight dude. Your entire post is basically one lie Steve. Go read up first before you speak on matters you know nothing of.

  • hillplus

    thanks for this information. I want to have an open mind, but when I listen to Perry, I just get a bad feeling. Something about that guy just isn’t right.

    • ccr

      I feel exactly the same way!! As my daughter’s governor and positive things about Perry, I was surprised with the “baggage” I’ve found. He caught my attention after saying repeatedly, “No, not running!” Then I could tell the tide was changing. Then came the Perry prayer rally/revival. Even before then, I was positive Perry was going to flipflop and become a GOP candidate. Was he just governor and doing the prayer revival, that is one thing, but to grab the attention of a huge Christian base with his prayer event, it went through me that he was USING religion to promote himself politically! That, to me, is almost blasphemous!

      Certainly we need God fearing leaders and those who protect the rights of all to worship, but favoring a religion (were the Catholics, Jews and Mormons invited?) as a political leader is not something I’m looking for in a leader. The groups that backed the event and Perry have some big questions in my mind as well.

  • Liz

    Hmmm. Not crazy about this piece. No real facts here, so it’s impossible to tell if the author has an axe to grind, or if she actually has a point. I’d say re-write and substantiate.

  • Jon

    Nothing but a hit piece. I’m really disappointed in this because I usually like this blog. I know she is a huge Mitt supporter but I didn’t think conservatives would be trashing other conservatives with unproven hit pieces.

  • Timotheus

    I am starting trial tomorrow prosecuting an arson case. I would have been interested to read why they initial investigation concluded arson and why that was subsequently disputed. A lot of times, determining arson is a process of elimination. Was someone cooking, no. Was there potential natural causes, no. Was it possibly electrical, etc. Ideally, you would have a fact scenario that rules everything else out and something that points to arson as the cause as well, such as the presence of flammable materials at a point of origin where they shouldn’t be. It sounds like this guy had the motive and the opportunity. The opinions of people who have reviewed it are only as good as the reasons they are relying on. Without knowing the reasons, it is tough for me to say their is some problem here. Reading the New Yorker article doesn’t shed much light because they don’t really say what was flawed. What was described visibly though, sure sounds like arson to me. I also have a question as to why you would be awoken by the cries of your kids and run outside instead of to the cries of your kids.

    • http://www.NancyFrench.com Nancy French

      Hey Timotheus, I hope your arson trial goes well! The New Yorker article wrote it from the POV of the initial investigators, and went into the flaws of their reasoning at the very end — it is SOOO LOOOONG. But it does detail it a bit.

    • http://www.NancyFrench.com Nancy French

      Timotheus, I hope your trial went well! The New Yorker article did address those issues — albeit way down the page! — and so did this PBS investigation here:

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/death-by-fire/

  • Donalbain

    Well, at least Perry is consistent. He thinks scientists are wrong on evolution, climate change and now arson.


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